Immigration Is Key in Race to Succeed Cantor

Many in conference think immigration reform is a death sentence for re-election.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy attend the House Republican Leadership press conference in Cambridge, Maryland, on Jan. 30, 2014.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., right, is the front-runner to replace Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., as majority leader. McCarthy says he's open to a path to citizenship for immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.

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Immigration reform isn’t on the ballot or even scheduled for a vote on the House floor, but it is looming large in this week’s House GOP leadership race.

[READ: Republicans and Democrats Both Feel Eric Cantor's Loss]

A little more than a week after Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., was handed a crushing defeat, the most conservative members of the Republican caucus are weary of electing a new leader that may be willing to cede ground when it comes to the securing the border and the question of legalizing the more than 11 million immigrants living in the shadows. The election is scheduled for Thursday morning.

David Brat, who surprised nearly everyone by thumping Cantor by double-digits, made immigration reform a central component of his primary race. Lawmakers say the outcome of that contest has left many concerned that immigration reform is an electoral death sentence.

“I think it was a major issue in Eric Cantor’s defeat. That is why it should be an issue here,” says Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., says she and others are so concerned about the immigration issue that they had asked leadership to delay the election by a week until another candidate entered the race “who would stand up against amnesty for illegal aliens.”

“We don’t have that. That is concerning to me,” Bachmann says.

Bachmann said Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., stood up and asked for leadership to delay the elections during a caucus meeting Wednesday morning because he felt like members had not had enough time to sort out the candidates positions on immigration and other issues.

“We would be remiss to ignore the results of the Virginia 7th [Congressional District] election,” Bachmann says. “If we don’t listen to the people, they will make us listen.”

In the race for majority leader, front-runner and GOP Whip Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., hails from a district where there is a growing Latino population. He comes from an area where farming and agriculture has attracted a constituency that is more than 30 percent Latino. McCarthy has more incentive to act on immigration reform than his predecessor Cantor, who represents a deeply conservative district where fewer than 5 percent of voters are Hispanic. In interviews about his personal beliefs, McCarthy has said he is open to a path for legal status for some of the 11.7 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.

[OPINION: Eric Cantor's Loss, Immigration and the Polls]

Democrats, however, say they are not optimistic McCarthy is any more likely to act on immigration reform this summer than Cantor.

“His own district politics may give him more maneuverability, but the national base doesn’t,” says Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “It doesn’t matter who is in leadership. Whoever is in the Republican leadership has always followed the tea party.”

Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho is interviewed by The Associated Press in Boise, Idaho, on Sept. 4, 2013.
Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho

McCarthy’s competition in the race for majority leader, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, also is walking a fine line on immigration reform. Before dropping out of the group, Labrador was part of a bipartisan coalition of legislators in the House who was working on a plan to reform the country’s immigration system. In recent months, he’s changed his tone and has been an outspoken advocate against acting on immigration reform this year. Labrador has even argued that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, should be kicked out as speaker if he moved on reform without the majority of the Republican caucus behind him.

The concern surrounding immigration reform has even trickled down into the race for the majority whip.

“This is a big issue for our party,” says Rep Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., who is running to be the Republican whip in the event McCarthy moves up the leadership ladder. “I would say for about 10 members this is the issue for them that determines how they are voting.”

Stutzman says that during meetings with the Republican conference, there have been discussions about how each of the candidate’s would proceed on immigration reform. He also said much of that discussion has shown that immigration reform is an issue no one has much of an appetite to take up before the August recess.

“The consensus is to hold off. I don’t think it will happen before August,” Stutzman says. “Our world was turned upside down with Eric’s loss so there is new leadership, a transition. So if we try to force anything before August, it would not be appropriate.”

Stutzman says while the leadership horse race is certainly shaking up the summer, it might be an opportunity for the sometimes caustically divided caucus to find common ground.

“There is a little fresh start here,” Stutzman says. “At the end of the day, we all want to be on the same page.”